Spawning suckerfish embark on fish runs in Alberta's lakes and streams

·3 min read
Fisheries scientist Michael Sullivan holds a shorthead redhorse. The sucker's tail turns red when it runs up river to spawn. (Submitted by Michael Sullivan - image credit)
Fisheries scientist Michael Sullivan holds a shorthead redhorse. The sucker's tail turns red when it runs up river to spawn. (Submitted by Michael Sullivan - image credit)

In an ordinary year, people travel far and wide to see the late summer and fall salmon runs in B.C.

But if you're in Alberta this spring, a fisheries scientist recommends taking a closer look at local rivers and streams that have their own fish runs.

The colourful journey of spawning suckerfish is happening right now in Alberta. The adults are running up the streams to spawn and lay eggs before swimming back down, Michael Sullivan told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

And the fish runs aren't limited to rural areas, said the Alberta Environment and Parks scientist.

Urban streams have runs of fish, too, including the Elbow River, Fish Creek and Nose Creek in Calgary, and the Mud Creek in Edmonton.

It means the water quality of rivers found in Alberta's cities is improving, he said.

"This is a really good news story, [because] back in the decades past, we were pretty mean to our streams," Sullivan said.

"We would channelize them, we would put barriers on them, we would dump our sewage right into the Bow and North Saskatchewan rivers. And as environmentalists, we have a lot to celebrate about these streams coming back."

Nature in the heart of the city

Suckerfish are found border to border, from Montana to Banff and Jasper, Sullivan said.

"Humans have been here about 30,000 years ... but these fish have been here for a million years," he said. "The long-nose suckers are bound border to border. They're found in the Milk River down by Montana and in the Slave up by the territories. Saskatchewan border right up to the high streams in Banff and Jasper."

Those predominantly seen in Calgary and Edmonton waterways are longnose suckers, which are characterized by a yellow stripe on their back that is followed by red and black bands — sort of a "German flag vibe."

Meanwhile, white suckerfish get a bright red side when they run, and Sullivan said it leads to mistaken reports of salmon in the creeks, while shorthead redhorse develop red tails.

Fisheries scientist Michael Sullivan holds a shorthead redhorse. The sucker's tail turns red when it runs up river to spawn.
Fisheries scientist Michael Sullivan holds a shorthead redhorse. The sucker's tail turns red when it runs up river to spawn.(Submitted by Michael Sullivan)

They are about the size of an eyelash when born. When they're fully grown (up to five pounds, or 2.3 kilograms) they make their way back to where they were born.

The running suckerfish often aren't noticed by passersby, Sullivan said, because people don't often watch creeks. But when people catch a glimpse of the colourful display, it can illicit awe.

"Here, we have nature in the heart in the city," he said. "The miracle of life and nature is right in front of you, in the moment."

To spot the suckerfish run, he recommends getting on a bike, slowly making your way along paths, and find a place in a river where you can see the bottom. Stop and watch the gravel for riffles for roughly five minutes.

  • WATCH | See what exactly a riffle is in the video above

"They're a wonderful animal," he said. "[So] get out there."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.